Sunday, June 26, 2016

Susan Parker: First pier was a wonder of New Deal era

YES, the first pier was federally-subsidized! Let's get federal funds for the replacement pier by enacting the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore.

Susan Parker: First pier was a wonder of New Deal era

Posted: June 25, 2016 - 8:38pm  |  Updated: June 26, 2016 - 8:54am

Susan Parker: First pier was a wonder of New Deal era
Posted: June 25, 2016 - 8:38pm | Updated: June 26, 2016 - 8:54am

The original St. Augustine Beach Pier extended a quarter mile into the Atlantic Ocean, long enough to stage drag racing on its deck.

The Atlantic Ocean, however, is not kind to such bold intrusions. An August 1939 storm damaged the east end of the brand new pier, less than one month after its completion. The pier was repaired, reinforced and shortened to 800 feet, losing almost 40 percent of its length. How quickly the pier lost the claim made in July 1939 that it extended “further into the Atlantic Ocean than any pier along the Atlantic Coast.”

In May 1935 the St. Johns County Commission had discussed how they might finance the idea of building an “ocean pier or piers” to lure visitors and encourage land purchases at St. Augustine Beach. A few months later the St. Augustine Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) recommended that the county apply for New Deal funds through the Public Works Administration. Other civic groups participated. The Hastings Jaycees offered to fundraise.

In November 1935 the Commission was informed that the pier project was denied because of lack of federal funds. Nevertheless, the commissioners continued work on the new road to the beach and to the hoped-for pier (now the road through Anastasia State Park). The pier project was bounced around by engineering issues, lack of federal funds and a local ongoing debate about where the pier should be located. A site was chosen among the three candidates at the current pier’s location.

Finally on Feb. 8, 1938, St. John County’s representatives in Congress — Sen. Claude Pepper, Sen. Charles O. Andrews and Rep. Joe Hendricks — reported that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed the ocean pier project bill. The money was to be used on a bulkhead, boardwalk, pier and parking lot.

The county agreed to provide machinery as its cost share, but at times county-owned mules pulled wagons to haul coquina from a nearby quarry. The County assigned convicts to work in the quarry. In September 1938, five men from the local jail were at work digging coquina. It was history repeating itself because convicts had worked the coquina quarries to extract stone for Castillo de San Marcos in the late 1600s.

It is interesting that New Deal projects were to assist communities with funds for projects and put unemployed people to work. I wonder if a convict could be considered “unemployed.”

Businessmen and leaders doubted that the pier would generate enough revenue to support itself. In October 1938, county leaders decided to build a pair of hotel buildings to flank the pier and help make it financially viable. (The south building still stands.)

The pier had its grand opening on Labor Day weekend of 1940, one year after World War II had begun in Europe. Cars drove under the pier during low tide and beachgoers took refuge from the sun under the pier deck.

Soon, German U-boats would appear off the coast of this county. Enemy submarines torpedoed an American oil tanker off Ponte Vedra Beach in the spring of 1942. Restrictions soon followed on the beaches and the mainland to darken street lights and automobile headlights. The speed limit was lowered for safety in the darker driving conditions.

Yet, artist Carl Austin created a lively oil painting in 1943 of “Pier & Bathers at St. Augustine Beach.” The picture gives no hint of the role of the grim war in their lives, and all appear to be having fun.

A fall storm in 1962 rendered the 1930s wooden pier structurally unsound. The current (concrete) pier replaced the New Deal-funded pier, opening in 1984.

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history and is executive director of the St. Augustine Historical Society.

attinson63 06/26/16 - 04:53 pm 00Painting
I've tried googling the painting Pier & Bathers and cannot find it. I'd love to see it.

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